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November 19, 2006

Prospering By Promoting Conflict Religion

Various blogs have linked to the latest outrage from Pat Robertson:

A viewer wrote in to ask Pat Robertson a question:
Why [do] evangelical Christians tell non-Christians that Jesus (God) is the only way to Heaven? Those who are Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, etc. already know and have a relationship with God. Why is this? It seems disrespectful.

Robertson replied that it is not all disrespectful because all other religions really just worship "demonic powers."

No. They don't have a relationship. There is the god of the Bible, who is Jehovah. When you see L-O-R-D in caps, that is the name. It's not Allah, it's not Brahma, it's not Shiva, it's not Vishnu, it's not Buddha. It is Jehovah God. They don't have a relationship with him. He is the God of all Gods. These others are mostly demonic powers. Sure they're demons. There are many demons in the world. [Emphasis in the original]

(Video here.)

Yes, Pat Robertson is an asshole. And yes, we're right to recoil from his primitive, small-minded atavism. But he's hardly alone.

Everywhere we look, some religious leader or other is promoting conflict against another religious group. Sunnis and Shiites, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, etc., etc. And now this (Time):

When [Pope] Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next week on his first visit to a Muslim country since becoming pope last year, he is unlikely to cloak himself in the downy banner of brotherhood, the way Pope John Paul II did during his sojourn there 27 years ago.

Instead, Benedict, 79, will arrive carrying a much different reputation: that of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and interreligious confrontation. Just 19 months into his tenure, the pope has become as much a lightning rod as a moral leader; suddenly, when he speaks, the whole world listens.

And what takes place over four days in three Turkish cities has the potential to define his papacy — and a good deal more. [...]

[T]his year he has emerged as a far more compelling and complex figure than anyone had imagined. And much of that has to do with his willingness to take on what some people feel is today's equivalent of the communist scourge — the threat of Islamic violence.

The topic is extraordinarily fraught: there are, after all, a billion or so nonviolent Muslims on the globe; the Roman Catholic church's own record in the religious-mayhem department is hardly pristine; and even the most naive of observers understands that the Vicar of Christ might harbor an institutional prejudice against one of Christianity's main global competitors.

But by speaking out last September in Regensburg, Germany, about the possible intrinsic connection between Islam and violence and refusing to retract its essence — even when Islamic extremists destroyed several churches and murdered a nun in Somalia — the pontiff suddenly became a lot more interesting.

In one imperfect but powerful stroke, he departed from his predecessor's largely benign approach to Islam, discovered an issue that might attract even the most religiously jaded and managed (for better or worse) to reanimate the clash-of-civilizations discussion by focusing scrutiny on the core question of whether Islam, as a religion, sanctions violence.

He was hailed by cultural conservatives worldwide. Says Helen Hull Hitchcock, a St. Louis, Missouri, lay leader who heads the conservative Catholic organization Women for Faith & Family: "He has said what needed to be said." [Emphasis added]

By slandering Islam, one of "Christianity's main global competitors," Benedict made himself, Time says, "a lot more interesting." Now, "when he speaks, the whole world listens."

Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have studied religions from the perspective of rational choice theory — people adhere to religions because they believe the benefits they get from religion justify the costs. Their analysis has led to a number of propostions about religious "firms" that must compete for adherents. To wit:

Proposition 76. Even where competition is limited, religious firms can generate high levels of participation to the extent that the firms serve as the primary organizational vehicles for social conflict. (Conversely, if religious firms become significantly less important as vehicles for social conflict, they will be correspondingly less able to generate commitment.)

Or, as Danial Dennett puts it in his book Breaking the Spell,

In other words, expect religious "firms" to exploit and exacerbate social conflict whenever possible, since it is a way of generating business.

I leave it to you to decide if Robertson, Benedict, et al, act out of instinct or calculated manipulation. Either way, the result is the same. In what should be an increasingly interconnected world, religion has emerged (or, re-emerged) as a deliberate, active sower of discord, giving people something we really don't need: yet another reason to hate one another, a reason supposedly bearing a stamp of approval from one god or another.

The great thing about Robertson's outburst is that it is so nakedly primitive, so anachronistic, so superstitious that it lets us see clearly what's going on. Now let's apply that insight to all religious pronouncements that seek to divide us. They're all equally bogus, even if they're stated with more finesse.

Must we, at this late date, persist in believing that our Invisible Avenger in the Sky (George Carlin's phrase) wants us to hate and kill people who believe in a differnt Invisible Avenger? Time to grow up and stop letting ourselves be played for such suckers.

Posted by Jonathan at November 19, 2006 07:18 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb